Over the last few years, having more than the standard five starting pitchers on a roster has become a necessity for virtually every team. Some have taken it to extreme lengths. For those that aim to reach the postseason, it’s especially important. The Astros are a good example as they carry a relative surplus of starting pitchers, with at least one typically a part of the relief staff.
Right now that lone hurler is Cristian Javier, who is primarily used in a multi-inning capacity. Although Javier has the talent to start, it’s increasingly looking like he should remain in the bullpen going forward.
The 25-year-old Javier was initially in the starting rotation as a rookie in 2020 and started 10 of the 12 regular-season games he appeared in, but in the playoffs, he was a capable reliever, posting a 2.89 ERA in 9 1⁄3 innings. The multi-inning reliever trend mostly continued in 2021 as the Dominican native appeared in 36 contests, starting just 9 of them. Again in October, Javier played a critical role in the bullpen, striking out batters at a remarkable 41.3 percent clip in 10 2⁄3 innings, sporting a 3.38 ERA in the process.
So far in 2022, Javier’s made two appearances as a reliever, striking out 8 in 4 2⁄3 scoreless frames.
Postseason stats included, Javier’s career ERA out of the bullpen is 3.37 in 80 1⁄3 innings, while his career ERA as a starter is 3.42 across 100 innings. Utilizing SIERA, an ERA estimator like FIP but designed to be predictive instead of descriptive, Javier’s 2021 looked like a promising foundation in his new full-time role, given his 3.58 SIERA as a reliever — whereas it was 4.00 as a starter.
Granted, it isn’t a considerable discrepancy, especially when accounting for the dozens of extra innings Javier would accrue as a starter. Moreover, a one-season sample size isn’t exactly ideal.
However, there are reasons to believe Javier’s best role is his current one, and that the numbers he’s generated out of the bullpen could notably improve.
For starters, there’s been a nice velocity increase.
The first thing that people usually think of when a starting pitcher is moved to the bullpen is that they’ll presumably gain one or two ticks in velo. This is the case for Javier, which in turn has made a significant impact on how many bats his rising four-seamer misses.
(To maximize the sample size, the following includes postseason data.)
Cristian Javier’s fastball
|Role||Average velocity (mph)||Whiff %|
|Role||Average velocity (mph)||Whiff %|
Pitching out of the bullpen also enables Javier to focus solely on his two main pitches, with his wipeout slider also playing up in shorter stints in terms of whiffs.
The lack of a viable third pitch has been an issue for the right-handed Javier since he debuted, which has resulted in yielding a career .235/.341/.415 slash to left-handed hitters. He has yet to throw either his curveball or changeup more than 7.8 percent of the time in a single season — in terms of usage, for a pitch to be an actual staple of a pitcher’s repertoire, the baseline is considered to be roughly 12 percent.
Despite possessing a limited arsenal, Javier’s lefty/righty splits are not terribly problematic — he’s been thoroughly dominant against right-handed bats (career .545 OPS), which helps alleviate his relative shortcomings versus lefties. If it weren’t for a below-average 10.8 percent career walk rate, as well as a mediocre command profile that dates back to his time in the upper minors, perhaps it would be feasible that Javier could grow into a league-average starter in time.
Javier has produced solid numbers in his 19 career starts and would likely be a part of a number of rotations across the league, but as a reliever, there seems to be more upside, given it would amplify his two pitches and lessen the need to develop better control.
Due to the depth in Houston’s rotation — even without the rehabbing Lance McCullers Jr. — Javier will likely continue to be the club’s multi-inning specialist out of the ‘pen, a valuable arm that can act as a de facto long-man when needed or as a highly effective bridge in the middle innings to Ryan Pressly and Co.
It’s certainly not improbable that Javier could markedly improve as a starter in the long term if given the chance, but at this juncture, it looks more realistic that he develops into a top-notch reliever instead. For now, it appears the Astros have opted to aim for the latter.